Theatre: A cause celebre returns

Terence Rattigan's Man and Boy was considered so shocking that Laurence Olivier refused to perform it. Now it's back in the West End for the first time in 40 years.

When Terence Rattigan attended the first night of Man and Boy in 1963, he hoped the play was his greatest, but feared it would be his last. Since 1956, when he failed to get the message that Look Back in Anger had written on the Royal Court wall, he had been increasingly regarded as artificial, snobbish and tinklingly minor. Variations on a Theme, in 1958, had run for only four months; two years later, Joie de Vivre, a musical based on his first hit, French Without Tears, closed after four nights. Ross, in 1961, had been a modest success in London, but New York critics dismissed the drama about TE Lawrence as superficial.

At the time, Rattigan thought that not only his career but his life was drawing to a close, that he would soon die of leukaemia (in fact, he lived 14 more years, and wrote three more plays). His concern that Man and Boy should be appreciated was so great that he took the extraordinary step for an established playwright of writing to some critics before the opening to explain his theme. It didn't help. Reviewers were not impressed, calling the play glib and melodramatic. When it opened on Broadway, the New York Times denounced it as "vulgar", and, even with the glamorous Charles Boyer in the lead, it quickly closed. Only Bernard Levin agreed with Rattigan that the play was his best, praising its "dramatic cunning". Man and Boy has not been revived since, but the director Maria Aitken and her star, David Suchet, have now decided that Levin may have been right.

Rattigan's best-known subject is the love that destroys, the carnal obsession for someone immature or wicked or (worst of all to the pre- Sixties audience) socially beneath one. While his genteel fans took these sins at face value, critics and more knowing theatregoers saw them as substitutes for "homosexual". Man and Boy, however, deals with the other theme that haunted the playwright - the thwarted love of father and son.

Set in 1934, the play is about an international financier who, on the brink of failure, suddenly needs the son who rejected him five years before. But the reason he needs him caused Rex Harrison, for whom the play had been written, to declare he wanted no part of it. In order to save his skin, Gregor Antonescu, who needs the co-operation of a secretly homosexual businessman, manipulates his rival into believing that the 23-year-old son from whom he has been estranged is his lover. The son, who, though unable to admit it, wants the father's love, does not realise until halfway through the deception how he is being used. Rattigan's next choice of leading man, Laurence Olivier, was also appalled: "I mean, passing off your own son as a queer and all that!".

The tortured emotions of the son towards his father have their origins in the playwright's relationship with Frank Rattigan, a jaunty Army major who was dismissed from the diplomatic service for indiscretion. Obstreperously hetero- sexual, Frank had no qualms about turning up at his son's school with the latest fun-loving blonde.

Rattigan knew the theory that an overly possessive mother is the cause of homosexuality, but believed that, in his case, the fault lay with the father whose love he had never "gained" - a telling verb. When he became successful, Rattigan, though well aware of his adored mother's humiliation, was still so eager for his father's goodwill that he let Frank entertain girlfriends in his flat. Though this collusion by the gay son in the father's heterosexuality has had a change of gender in Man and Boy, the inherited emotional damage remains the same: Antonescu is cold towards his wife as well as his son, just as the son keeps his own, warm, loving girlfriend at arm's length. It is no accident, one suspects, that the seedy middle- aged man in Separate Tables who pesters strange women in cinemas (Rattigan had wanted to make his offence importuning men, but the censor, in England, and the producer, in America, both refused) is an Army major, and a phoney one at that. In his last play, Cause Celebre, Rattigan, instead of haranguing or punishing the father figure, took his part, with a sympathetic portrait of a man who loves his wife but must go elsewhere for the sexual satisfaction she refuses him. Of all the ways he treated this problem, however, the most successful, in both artistic and commercial terms, was wish-fulfilment fantasy: in The Winslow Boy, Rattigan simply left sex out of the picture and created a father who sacrifices money, position and the other members of his family to defend his wrongly accused son against the entire English establishment.

Though Aitken originally "subscribed to the Royal Court view" on Rattigan, over the years, she says, she has decided "he was a much wiser old bird than I gave him credit for". On tour last year with Man and Boy, she saw his craftsmanship in action. "He's a breathlessly effective storyteller. The audiences were transfixed. There was a collective exhalation at the end of Act I," she says.

In this revival, however, Rattigan has had a little help. Thelma Holt, the producer bringing the play to the West End, felt that in places the play was clumsy and unclear. This was hardly surprising, given that Rattigan, struggling with his painful theme and the qualms of his producers, had gone through 10 drafts. The figure of Antonescu, immensely powerful but not entirely within the playwright's control, loomed over the play, unbalancing it, in the same way the character dominates his son. With the approval of Rattigan's estate, Aitken has trimmed the final version, and introduced material from previous drafts. "When I saw what Maria had done," says Holt, "I found that she had fixed everything I felt was wrong."

Aitken has cut or altered such dated devices as an opening radio broadcast explaining who Antonescu is. "I think people are better now at picking up information elliptically." The play's own problem of Rattigan having given the action to Antonescu, the emotion to the son, remains, but, with more than 20 minutes cut from the 1963 version, is far less obvious. Aitken does not believe that painting the main character so black unbalances the play. "Rattigan definitely saw Antonescu as the devil - that's why he gave him all the best lines," she says. "He hated the way Boyer played him - `like a head waiter', he said. The more evil he is, the more anguished the son is, because, while he hates the father's dominance, he can't help envying his potency."

But the villainy of the character does not, says Suchet, prevent an audience from being on his side. "Antonescu may be the devil, but he's very seductive. As soon as I see that the audience is seduced, I can go as dark as I like, and they want me to win."

The charge most often made against Rattigan today is that his plays are out of date because society has changed so much. Not only can gay people live openly now, but all emotions are more freely expressed, manners are more informal, and people are no longer terrified that a faux pas will ruin their lives. While there is some truth in this, Holt feels that the audience for Rattigan, who takes the part of the emotionally wounded, is greater than before. "Repression and anguish today can be addressed with a little more compassion," she says. "We haven't changed that much - there's still a lot of pain around."

`Man and Boy', Duchess Theatre, London WC2 (0870 890 1103). Previews from 1 February

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